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Haiti prison guards await verdict in massacre case

By Cj Lotz
Associated Press / December 14, 2011
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LES CAYES, Haiti—Lawyers for 13 police officers accused of killing inmates during a prison riot in southern Haiti contended Wednesday that the prisoners themselves fatally shot at each other.

With the trial nearing an end, the defense team of more than 20 attorneys said in closing arguments that officers who entered the prison in Les Cayes after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake did so only to bring order to an already bloody scene.

Lawyer Pierre Thomas St. Fort said the defendants are civil servants trying to do their job under difficult circumstances. He asked the officers to stand one by one before the court.

"Look at these men, these civil servants," he said. "They were acting on orders to enter the prison, and they did their job."

An additional 21 officers are being tried in absentia because they fled.

All are accused of killing at least 10 prisoners, although United Nations police believe more bodies may have been removed. Dozens of other inmates were wounded during the uprising, which began when some of the 400-plus prisoners tried to escape because they feared aftershocks in the overcrowded prison.

Lead prosecutor Jean-Marie Salomon said that holding the police responsible would be a boost for human rights in Haiti.

"This trial is historic," Salomon said. "This is the first time in Les Cayes we've held our own police officers accountable for their abuses. What is decided will be an example for those who come after us of how we respect our citizens."

Judge Ezekiel Vaval said he planned to leave for New York this weekend to write the verdict, which he expects to release in January.

He said he is leaving Haiti for his own safety following threatening phone calls that he and his family received when the trial began in late October.

"You know, in Haiti, anyone can pay a little money and have me killed," Vaval said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "But I believe in God. I know that I must finish this trial and make a decision, and it is up to God what happens to me."

The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted.

The trial has drawn hundreds of people to the courtroom every day, including Kesnel Cange, a 51-year-old carpenter.

"I put this trial on my schedule every day," he said. "It's our entertainment here. It's like watching a TV show -- everyone has their favorite character. The people who love the prosecution cheer when they speak. When the defense says something, their fans cheer."

In a separate civil trial, a group of lawyers is seeking reparations for five families whose relatives died in the riot.

Although the trial is the first of its kind in Les Cayes, the prison riot was not the first that ended in bloodshed.

During a 2004 riot in the Port-Au-Prince penitentiary, police allegedly opened fire and killed at least 10 inmates. Although the U.N. produced a report, the Haitian government at the time objected to it being published and it was not released. No police officers ever stood trial.

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